Feb. 4 is designated as Four Chaplains Day in America, a day dedicated to honoring the men and women who provided religious and counseling services to service men around the globe through numerous conflicts and wars.
The recognition was inspired by the story of four chaplains who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II, but honors all those who served as chaplains, fighting their war with Bibles and Rosaries.
As a child, I used to enjoy going to Washington, D.C., and taking in the many sights and attractions. One of my favorite places was the old Wax Museum near the Armory. It’s long gone now, and the historical displays are probably serving a second life as candles in some unknowing soul’s parlor.
The museum featured the regular wax fare of figures including Jack the Ripper, President Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth and Marilyn Monroe.
But it was the final stop on the tour that intrigued me the most. You could hear it before it actually appeared, as a portion of ship tossed in artificially rough waters, obviously on its last leg before a trip to Davy Jones’ locker.
Four men remain on deck, one of them praying while the other holds a Rosary. Another one leans over the rail to give his life preserver to a sailor in the water. It was quite a dramatic scene and made a lasting impression on me.
When I grew older, I only remembered portions of the brief story that accompanied the scene at the museum, but I never forgot the image of those men calmly offering their life vests to save the lives of others.
I have since learned the entirety of their saga, and the enormity of their sacrifice.
The four chaplains served together with 900 other men on the Dorchester on an undisclosed mission in the North Atlantic in the winter of 1943. More than a week had passed when a German submarine near Newfoundland torpedoed the ship.
The blast knocked out the ship’s electricity, and the four chaplains were instrumental in forming and directing an orderly evacuation from the darkened lower decks. They handed out life vests, and, when the supply ran out, took the ones off their backs and handed them to men preparing to abandon ship.
A survivor of the sinking, one of only about 200, said the last thing he saw before the ship sank beneath the waves was the four chaplains.
“The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men,” Grady Clark recounted. That’s exactly the way I remember the scene at the old museum.
Most of the men perished in the icy waters of the Atlantic, and the four chaplains became national heroes. They have a day designated in their honor, have been the focus of numerous television and written inquiries and prompted the founding of the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation.